Sunday, 1 July 2018

The Great God Telly

As a child, one summer's day in rural Victoria, I went with an older relative to conduct some business of his in a small country town. I remember stepping from the dazzling brightness of a mid-summer street in Australia into a dark, cool sitting room where all the blinds and curtains had been drawn. The only light source was a large television in one corner, casting flickering images out into the gloom.

"Did you notice?", my relative asked as we walked away from that house, "The great God telly has them in its thrall."

I rather liked that phrase, which seemed to me to express rather well the hold television had over most of us for years. I have no idea how many hours of my life I have wasted in front of televisions. I do remember shocking even myself when, the night before I was to set off on a trip northwards through late Cultural Revolution China and then across the Gobi Desert to Ulan Bator, I said to my mother, "I don't really want to go tomorrow because I won't be able to find out what happens next in No. 96 ".

But now television's power is ebbing. It is no longer the primary source of entertainment for everyone; the internet is threatening its grip on audience share. It is not just that there are streaming services like Netflix, which serve as alternatives. It is also that we have entirely other things to divert ourselves with. If what we see on the television screen doesn't absolutely engross us, we pick up our trusty little companion, the smartphone, and apply at least part of our attention to what's happening on Instagram or Twitter, while still keeping maybe half an eye on the attempts to amuse us provided by the once all absorbing TV.

Which is why I found this article so intriguing. Perhaps to counter the new attention deficit of audiences, a new form of television has been devised, in which fictional characters have Instagram accounts and Facebook pages and viewers are encouraged to interact with them as if they were real. I suppose in a way this is a natural extension of a) the new phenomenon we all to a lesser or greater extent experience of having relationships - (whether they are merely to do with commercial transactions or are more complex, actual cyber friendships) - with people who we have never met except on line and b) reality TV, which, of course was never really real, displaying only a version of real events and people, cleverly edited to make a fascinating - if you were lucky - story.

As someone who is easily sucked into fictional sagas - too often, I find myself pondering the lives and behaviour of characters in The Archers as I hang out the washing, and then having to sternly remind myself, "They do not exist; they are not real" - I find this development alarmingly tempting. Luckily as yet it is not targeted at my age group. Otherwise, I might disappear into an electronic stupor forever.

The strangest thing is that, at the same time as programmers are reaching for these new tricks to deck out televisual fiction, desperately trying to increase its authenticity and keep people interested, the actual quality of picture and costume and all the other things that I think come under the heading of production values is getting better and better. And yet somehow the improved visual standards seem to have little effect when it comes to attracting viewers. In fact, at least in my experience, heightened picture quality robs the final results of much authenticity. For reasons I don't quite understand, when I watch big expensive BBC costume dramas these days, I find that the astonishing clarity of the picture - the intensity of its visual detail - does not convince me but instead makes me acutely aware that I'm watching something that is not real. The very sharpness reminds me that there are lots of lights all around the actors, that there are make-up artists and cameras hovering just out of frame and that this scene is probably being filmed completely out of sequence with the one before and the one after. Most peculiarly, when I looked at an episode of I Claudius recently (I Claudius is a series I adored when it was first shown), I found, to my amazement, that the costumes and sets look like something from rather bad amateur dramatics. How did I never notice at the time? Could the problem be that the scripts and acting back then were so good they transcended everything else, whereas now all the effort is going into visual elements at the expense of content? Maybe, but I'm not entirely convinced. Whatever the cause, for me at least the very sophistication of more modern methods is making television hard to watch and enjoy. 

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